The actor discusses stepping behind the lens for his startling directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader.
Brady Corbet is familiar to the eye, yet far from being a household name – and meeting him in the flesh you get the sense he prefers it that way. The brooding indie mainstay made his screen debut on TV’s The King of Queens aged 11, before landing his first film roles in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Michael Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. He was even briefly distracted by Hollywood in 2004 with a forgettable Thunderbirds reboot. But it has always seemed like he needed more.
Now, Corbet has channelled his restless energy into something dark and foreboding entirely of his own making. His directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, is an offbeat post-World War One romp which points to the rise of fascism in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. After years of on-off development – Corbet’s partner, the Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold, convinced him to revive it in 2014 – the film finally emerged at the Venice Film Festival where is won the Best Debut and Best Director awards. “I’ve always been interested in this period of world history, for whatever reason – the period between the two [world] wars,” Corbet explains. “That moment in time defined foreign policy as we know it today – in America and throughout much of the rest of the world. I wanted to try and make a poetic film about politics and interpersonal dynamics – but not a political film, if that makes sense. Something as punk rock as possible.”
To achieve that, Corbet approached his friend Robert Pattinson to co-star opposite Bérénice Bejo and Game of Thrones regular Liam Cunningham, which helped raise the necessary finance. But before shooting even began, the 28-year-old pulled off an even greater coup, enlisting the services of cult musician Scott Walker for a deliriously deranged, hypnotic score. Like all great film music, it quickly becomes its own character in the film, its pounding intensity spectacular assaulting the senses with incessant regularity.
“He’s my hero,” Corbet says of the famously private Walker, who typically shuns such offers. “There’s nobody that would have been the right combination of classical and totally punk other than Scott. That was a defining characteristic of what we set out to do. When he said yes, we were kind of shocked. It seemed too good to be true. And when I had moments of doubt, he spoke to me in a very comforting way. He was like, ‘You’ve got to shoot for the moon’.”
The Childhood of a Leader centres on an American diplomat (Cunningham), who’s in Paris to help negotiate the map of post-war Europe. His wife (Bejo) and their young son, Prescott (newcomer Tom Sweet) have joined him outside the French capital, holed up in a dark, gloomy house. When the patriarch does see his family (mostly at weekends), he is shocked by his son’s erratic behaviour, and irate at his wife’s reluctance to bear him another child. Complicating matters further is the boy’s teacher (Stacy Martin) and a visiting journalist, Charles (the aforementioned Pattinson). Before long, the precocious Prescott is causing havoc with the locals – and at home. It’s this that draws on disturbing real-life events. A dictator will ultimately emerge from all this – but not who you might think.
“Mussolini used to throw rocks at parishioners when they were coming out of mass when he was a kid,” Corbet explains. “He also maimed one of his teachers and a fellow student. For me, he became the face of the worst kind of machismo and misogyny. He ruined every woman’s life he touched.”
The film, shot on 35mm, is rife with cultural references. Given recent events in the US and Europe, it feels even more intense and timely, not least because of the boy’s jaw-dropping belligerence. Bejo believes her stifled, unhappy character in the film is, “in a certain way, giving that power to the little boy. In a sort of way, she’s enjoying his insolence.” The results of this are wildly unpredictable.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, like his most intense on-screen characters Corbet can’t sit still for long. After years of co-writing and editing (most notably with Borderline, the New York-based team responsible for 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene), the Arizona native is already plotting his next directorial outing, Vox Lux, about the rise of a female pop star from 1999 to the present day. He’s also made noises about quitting acting for good, especially is his filmmaking career takes off. Still, it’s hard to imagine Corbet not turning up on screen in some deeply unsettling film at some point in the near future. Whatever he winds up doing, he’s likely to be stirring it up for some time to come.
The Childhood of a Leader is in cinemas 19 August.
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